Subbulakshmi and contemporary feminism: Sunil Khilnani on BBC Radio 4 Incarnations: India in 50 Lives

M.S. Subbulakshmi
Born 16 September 1916. Died 11 December 2004

Madurai Shanmukhavadivu Subbulakshmi (Tamil: மதுரை சண்முகவடிவு சுப்புலட்சுமி, Madurai Shanmukhavadivu Subbulakshmi ? 16 September 1916 – 11 December 2004), also known as M.S., was a Carnatic vocalist. She was the first musician ever to be awarded the Bharat Ratna, India’s highest civilian honour. She is the first Indian musician to receive the Ramon Magsaysay award, often considered Asia’s Nobel Prize, in 1974 with the citation reading “Exacting purists acknowledge Srimati M. S. Subbulakshmi as the leading exponent of classical and semi-classical songs in the carnatic tradition of South India.”

Source: M.S. Subbulakshmi – New Songs, Playlists, Videos & Tours – BBC Music
Address: http://www.bbc.co.uk/music/artists/613361fb-24bd-4bc9-ad63-85ac5bc79156
Date Visited: Mon Apr 11 2016 14:17:14 GMT+0200 (CEST)

Sunil Khilnani explores the life of south Indian singer MS Subbulakshmi

Subbulakshmi’s singing voice, striking from the start, would ultimately range three octaves. A perfectionist, she had the capacity to range across genres but narrowed over the years to what another connoisseur of her music has called a ‘provokingly small’ repertoire. In time, the ambitions of those who loved and profited from her combined with her gift to take her from the concert stage to film to the All-India Radio to near-official status as an icon of independent India.

But, as Professor Khilnani says, “what was required of Subbulakshmi, in moving from South Indian musical celebrity to national cultural symbol, is deeply uncomfortable when considered through the prism of contemporary feminism.”

Source: BBC Radio 4 – Incarnations: India in 50 Lives, Subbulakshmi: Opening Rosebuds
Address: http://www.bbc.co.uk/programmes/b073b5cb
Date Visited: Mon Apr 11 2016 14:12:31 GMT+0200 (CEST)

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The tambura’s role in perfect alignment to pitch: “The most beautiful way to discover music” – T.M. Krishna

More by and about T.M. Krishna >>

To sing just with the tanpura has been revealing: TM Krishna

M Suganth | Times of India | Nov 27, 2014 | To read the full article, click here >>

They had collaborated earlier for Margazhi Raagam, which was a first-of-its-kind Carnatic concert film and now, singer TM Krishna and filmmaker Jayendra have come together for One, a film that they say will be a peep into a musician going through the process of creativity. The two reveal how the project came to be, the challenges they faced and what it means to the viewer. […]

TM Krishna: To be able to sing just with the tanpura is the most revealing thing for me as a singer. It is the most beautiful way to discover music without becoming dependent on the pakkavadhyam or the mic. There is nothing to protect you. It was a very emotional and intimate experience for me. That depth of my experience is revealed in the film. […]

Source: To sing just with the tanpura has been revealing: TM Krishna – Times of India
Address: http://timesofindia.indiatimes.com/entertainment/tamil/music/To-sing-just-with-the-tanpura-has-been-revealing-TM-Krishna/articleshow/45284656.cms
Date Visited: 25 July 2021

“Tambura is my constant companion – a bridge to my past, keeping the memories of my childhood alive.” – Bombay Jayashri >>
Learn more about the tambura >>

Perfect alignment to pitch, intellectualism and bhava make for great music

Widely varying styles have an equal place under the Carnatic umbrella. Is it at all possible to define a single aesthetic for a genre that ranges from the thrilling and electrifying rhythms of a Trichy Sankaran accompanying the late Semmangudi Srinivasa Iyer singing the Tyagaraja masterpiece Dinamanivamsha, to the subtle rendering of a padam by the late T. Brinda? Such contrasts, though they do exist in a genre like Hindustani music, are always less stark. […]

One common aspect of such artistes who were perceived as highly aesthetic in the earlier days of amplification is the scrupulous attention they paid to shruti shuddham or toaligning themselves perfectly to pitch. Arguably, such scrupulous attention to pitch alignmentmay well have had the effect of mitigating the jarring impact of imperfect amplification. Even where there’s a great struggle to maintain shruti shuddham, an exquisite secret leaps out of old recordings of ageing masters who had lost control of their voices. That secret is the pride of place they accorded the tambura and its overall audibility. The aesthetically pleasing aura created by a sonorous and meticulously tuned tambura has a way of gently embracing a singer’s shruti lapses and folding it into the overall sound. Unfortunately, the exact opposite is feared and hence a tendency to relegate the tambura, whether a real one or electronic, to de facto inaudibility for the audience. This only exacerbates the listener’s perception of a lack of shruti shuddham.

Art, as it is normally understood, is first and foremost sensual and emotional before anything else, but Carnatic music has always been seduced by the intellect, resulting in anything from a mild flirtation to a torrid affair. The intellectual, even in musical contexts, need not be disdained but it certainly challenges conventionally held notions of aesthetics. More importantly, such intellectual music may not suffer as much at the hands of bad audio as conventionally aesthetic music, and hence, could induce stagnation in the evolution of better sound. […]

The emotional in the art is what is referred to in the Carnatic world as bhava. Bhava comes from many aspects of Carnatic music but its most serious claimant is the repertoire itself. The bedrock of Carnatic music is its repertoire – the intensely bhava-laden compositions of great masters. The remarkable vibrancy and sustainability of Carnatic music compared to some other genres come from bhava which is certainly the crown jewel. In fact, it could be argued that this alone often compensates for the lack of other aesthetic dimensions in the overall experience. […]

Source: “Challenges of internal diversity in the Carnatic genre” by Uday Shankar, The Hindu, 17 December 2011
Address: https://www.thehindu.com/features/friday-review/music/challenges-of-internal-diversity-in-the-carnatic-genre/article2721404.ece
Date Visited: 2 August 2021

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“Sampradaya is like a broad river and the bani is a tributary”: Umayalpuram Sivaraman on his 75 years of performance >>

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Raga Hamsadhvani in: “India’s classical music may be the best antidote to chauvinism” by Ramachandra Guha

To read the full article by the internationally acclaimed author of India After Gandhi, click here >>

After Partition, Bade Ghulam chose to move to Pakistan, but, finding the audience for classical music limited (in all senses of the word), wished to return to the Indian side of the border. In the 1950s, it was much easier to travel between these two countries than it is now. So Bade Ghulam made a trip to Mumbai, where someone brought his predicament to the attention of Morarji Desai, then the chief minister of the undivided Bombay State. Morarji bhai arranged for a government house for the maestro, while the Central government, headed at the time by Jawaharlal Nehru, smoothed the way for this Muslim from Pakistan to become a citizen of India.

Hamsadhvani is a lovely, melodious, raga in the Carnatic tradition, said to have been originally composed by Ramaswamy Dikshitar in the 18th century. There are many songs set in this raga, such as “Vatapi Ganapathim”, a hugely popular item in the repertoire of (among others) M.S. Subbulakshmi and M.L. Vasanthakumari. At some stage the raga was also adapted by Hindustani musicians for their own use. […]

Listen to the rendition of raga Hamsadhvani by Bade Ghulam Ali Khan (YouTube from 3:20), recorded at the Rama Navami 1956 festival in Bangalore’s Fort High School >>

The celebrated Kannada writer, Kota Shivarama Karanth, once remarked that it was impossible to “to talk of ‘Indian culture’ as if it is a monolithic object”. In Karanth’s opinion, “Indian culture today is so varied as to be called ‘cultures’. The roots of this culture go back to ancient times: and it has developed through contact with many races and peoples. Hence, among its many ingredients, it is impossible to say surely what is native and what is alien, what is borrowed out of love and what has been imposed by force. If we view Indian culture thus, we realise that there is no place for chauvinism.”

To this quote from Karanth let me append one by Rabindranath Tagore. Speaking of our inherited and shared diversity, Tagore once remarked: “No one knows at whose call so many streams of men flowed in restless tides from places unknown and were lost in one sea: here Aryan and non-Aryan, Dravidian, Chinese, the bands of Saka and the Hunas and Pathan and Mogul, have become combined in one body.”

The pluralism and cultural heterogeneity that Karanth and Tagore highlighted mark most spheres of Indian life. And perhaps (as they knew so well themselves) our classical music above all. Whether it be instrument or raga or genre or performer, we cannot say what is Hindu and what is Muslim, which part is native and which alien.  […]

For the act of Bade Ghulam Ali Khan singing Hamsadhvani at a Rama Navami concert in Bangalore’s Fort High School in 1956 brings and blends together many languages, religions, regions, political regimes, musical traditions, and architectural styles. It is a glorious tribute to the cultural diversity of our country and our civilization.

Source: The Telegraph (Calcutta)
URL: https://www.telegraphindia.com/opinion/indian-classical-music-may-be-the-best-antidote-to-chauvinism/cid/1778691
Date visited: 6 June 2020

Audio tip | JA Jayanth’s grandfather and guru TS Sankaran live at Kalakshetra >>

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“Sampradaya is like a broad river and the bani is a tributary”: Umayalpuram Sivaraman on his 75 years of performance >>

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Flute TS Sankaran – Kalakshetra 1988

  • 1. 0:0:00 kAmbhOdi aTa tALa varNam
  • 2. 0:11:11 gajAnanayutam – chkravAkam
  • 3. 0:20:16 sogasu jUDa – kannaDagowLam
  • 4. 0:26:50 nenaruncarA nApaini – simha vAhini
  • 5. 0:34:15 cinna nADE – kalAnidhi
  • 6. 0:45:35 rAgam + manasu swAdhInamaina – shankarAbharaNam
  • 7. 1:20:22 rAgam+ meevalla – kApi
  • 8. 1:35:38 rAgam + parama pAvana rAma – pUrvikalyANi + thani 9. 2:38:34 mariyAda telikanE – suraTi jAvaLi
  • 10. mangaLam

Vidwan TS Sankaran was Flute Mali’s favorite and most trusted disciple. Apart from imbibing many of his guru’s techniques, he has created several of his own. His music also sometimes reflects his passion for the other great genius piper of the 20th century, TN Rajaratnam Pillai, who hails from the same village as Shri Sankaran. His legacy, and that of his guru Mali, is fortunately being continued through his grandson, Flute Jayanth.

Live recording made on 31 December 1988 – shared by Ludwig Pesch under Creative Commons

TS Sankaran – biographical entry in Garland Vol. II by N. Rajagopalan
(Chennai 1992), p.264

Audio tip | JA Jayanth’s grandfather and guru TS Sankaran live at Kalakshetra >>

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Gudu Gudu for “Happy days ahead”: Carnatic music at its innovative best – KaraikudiVoyage

Gudu Gudu makes wonderful listening, time and again. A rendition by Sreevidhya Chandramouli along with her husband and son as part of their ongoing KaraikudiVoyage.

This song encapsulates the healing power of music waiting to be brought into practice on a more regular base for being rooted in tradition at its very best.

Translation on Archive.org

  1. NEW FORTUNE TELLER (PUDIYA KONANGI)*
    by Mahakavi Bharati

    Gudu gudu gudu gudu gudu gudu gudu gudu
    Happy days ahead for the people!
    Caste feelings are no more.
    No more are there any conflicts.
    Shakti ! Maha Kali! Speak up.
    Predict good times for the people of Vedapura !

    Poverty is gone.
    Prosperity is in.
    Knowledge is ushered in.
    Sins have vanished in the thin air.
    If the educated try to deceive
    the simple men, they will be ruined in no time.

    Commerce and industry are being learnt.
    Workers flourish.
    Shastras and skills are being learnt.
    Fear is gone. Justice prevails.
    The hour of awakening is come.
    The magic of incantations is working all around us.

Source: Full text of “Poems Subramania Bharati” (National Council of Educational Research and Training, 1982), pp. 147-151 in the text version provided by Archive.org; and from p. 160 in the embedded version displayed above.

* The fortune teller is traditionally depicted as shaking a small hourglass-shaped drum called kudukuduppai in Tamil, and as damaru across India. Two beads attached to it by strings produce the characteristic rattling “kudu kudu” sound evoked in this poem as harbinger of a bright future for all.

Carnatic Singer Manickam Yogeswaran
playing the kudukuduppai (damaru) during a family workshop
at Museum Rietberg (Zurich) in 2008

More about the poet Subramanya Bhaaratiyaar (1882-1921)

Bharati was determined to abolish the caste system in India. He selected an untouchable boy, to prove his principle of “equality” to the society.

Learn more from the Annotated Biography (with a National Historical Background) published by his granddaughter Dr. S. Vijaya Bharati >>

When Bharati’s vision as a poet went to work upon the sober knowledge of national and world affairs derived from his journalistic labors, the result was compelling political poetry of a kind that is rarely found in twentieth-century literature – with, fittingly enough, Russian literature being a notable exception.

Mira T. Sundara Rajan in “Subramania Bharati — The Eternal Revolutionary” (The Hindu, 12 September 2017)
https://www.thehindu.com/news/national/subramania-bharati-the-eternal-revolutionary/article19670435.ece
(The author is a great-granddaughter of Mahakavi Bharati. She holds a DPhil from Oxford University, where her research involved the study of Russian law and history. A wealth of information about the poet may be found on his granddaughter’s blog, https://subramaniabharati.com)

Subramanya Bharathiyar is a renowned poet from Southern India. … His poetry is known for its appeal to the liberty and strength of the people. … His national integration songs earned him the title “DEsiya Kavi” (National Poet). He composed Tamil keertanais on love, devotion, fearlessness, mysticism. | Learn more on karnatik.com >>

For background information on places like Karaikudi, Ettayapuram (the poet’s birthplace) and Chennai (where he died), explore the musical map created for this course. | Tips for using the interactive Carnaticstudent-map >>

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Vidyaamagna: webinar & online lessons

Find a copy of the Oxford Illustrated Companion to South Indian Classical Music

  • on the publisher’s website: Oxford University Press
  • in a library near you via WorldCat.org
  • from one of several Indian distributors and online bookstores

Historically, Bharatanatyam was mostly prevalent in Tamil Nadu, though traces of it were found in the 20th century in what are now Kerala, Karnataka and Andhra Pradesh. Today it is taught and practised throughout the globe. The term ‘Bharatanatyam’ has been in existence at least from the 15th century but we do not know the compositions the dancers performed in the early years of Bharatanatyam. […] The repertoire added during the time of Tulaja and Serfoji II owes its credit to four brothers of Tanjavur who belonged to a traditional natyacharya family. They were Chinnayya, Ponnayya, Sivanandam and Vadivelu, the ‘Tanjavur Quartet’ we know.

Read the full article by Bharatanatyam music expert BM Sundaram: The Tanjavur Quartet: Margadarsis of Bharatanatyam (Sruti Magazine, courtesy dhvaniohio.org)

Tip: safe-search: Bharatanatyam Serfoji Tanjavur | More search tips >>
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“My music is an extension of my tambura” – Bombay Jayashri

“Tambura is my constant companion – a bridge to my past, keeping the memories of my childhood alive.” – Bombay Jayashri >>
Learn more about the tambura >>

Can digital alternatives substitute the original symbol of sruti?
by Aruna Chandaraju in The Hindu, 29 March 2018 >>

Classical musicians have many concerns. A major one is having a perfectly tuned tambura — when practising and performing. Naturally. The tambura aka tanpura, is the keeper of the pitch. It is the guardian of the right note. The tambura is the drone instrument which keeps the sruti. And sruti is the mother of music. […]

This writer has often wondered why the tambura player’s name is not regularly mentioned in concert invitations along with that of the other accompanying artistes. Maybe, sabhas, organisers and artistes should think on these lines.

Teachers and performers consider playing the traditional tambura early in the morning both calming and even therapeutic and must be part of a student’s training. Pantula Rama believes that a musician’s personal tambura is invaluable and irreplaceable as it comes to life during the long years of sadhana. “Musicians should maintain old tamburas — either their own or inherited — as an extension of the body itself. Sabhas should maintain tamburas of different srutis, make it a point to have traditional tambura for each concert, and have a panel of music students and artistes well trained in this art,” she says and adds that good remuneration and respect on a par with other accompanists will encourage tambura players. […]

Is it time to start tambura academies? Or at least special certificate course only on tambura tuning? Or should tambura artistes have an association of their own to ensure good remuneration?

Radha Bhaskar has some good news: “We, at Mudhra, are thinking of organising a workshop on tambura tuning and playing. Madurai G.S. Mani has offered to conduct it,” she says.

Ravikiran says that AIR should restore the importance of a separate category for the tambura player.

The number of music festivals at various government and private academic institutions has grown over the years. Students of these institutions should be compulsorily trained in this art and encouraged to provide tambura accompaniment. It would give them a great opportunity to be with senior artistes and also provide valuable stage experience too.

Bridge to the past

For Bombay Jayashri, it is a unique relationship with the tambura. Her association goes back to her childhood. “The house would be filled with Omkara naadam as my father sat with his tambura in perfect sruti alignment. That left a deep impression in my mind. My grandfather and mother were also tambura lovers,” says Jayashri, who even wrote a poem, ‘Tambura My Sakhi.’

Naturally, it led to a collection of her favourite instrument — Miraj, Thanjavur, Trivandrum… she has them all. “I buy them in pairs,” she laughs. […]

Jayashri believes that it is the tambura, which inspires the musical phrases when she sings. “As I hold it close to my ear, I find myself completely cut off from the world. The raga draws me in. May be I’m imagining it but my music is an extension of my tambura.” Jayashri has names for her collection. “They are so close to my heart, I thought it was rude to identify them as the light brown, dark brown, white cedar, etc. So they have names — Mithra, Kamakshi, Kathyayini and so on.”

Does she not find them unwieldy especially when travelling?

“They are delicate. So I don’t carry the antique ones. I have compact ones, which I can carry as hand luggage. But I would never travel without one,” she explains. “Tambura is my constant companion – a bridge to my past, keeping the memories of my childhood alive.”

As performers-cum-teachers, we should practise with the traditional tambura and teach music with the same to the students.

Malladi Brothers quoted by Aruna Chandaraju in The Hindu >>
Learn more about the tambura >>

Therapeutic effect

By Rama. Kausalya in The Hindu, 29 March 2018 >>

The Tambura is considered a queen amongst the Suri vadhyas such as Ektar, Dotar, Tuntina, Ottu and Donai. Although tamburas are traditionally made at certain places, the Thanjavur Tambura has a special charm, which makes it a favourite. They are beautifully ornamented like the Thanjavur Veena. Veena Asaris are the Tambura makers too but not all are experts the reason being it requires a special skill to make the convex ‘Meppalagai’ or the plate covering the ‘Kudam’ or ‘Paanai.’ The making and fixing of the Meppalagai must be done with utmost care.

There are two ways of holding a Tambura. One is the “Urdhva” — upright posture, as in in concerts. Placing the Tambura on the right thigh is the general practice. The other is to place it on the floor in front of the person who is strumming it. While practising or singing casually, it can be placed horizontally on the lap, the Kudam on the right side.

The middle finger and index finger are used to strum the Tambura. Of the four strings, the ‘Panchamam,’ which is at the farther end is plucked by the middle finger followed by the successive plucking of ‘Sārani’, ‘Anusārani’ and ‘Mandara’ strings one after the other by the index finger. This exercise is repeated in a loop resulting in the sruti resonating entirely and creating a wholesome musical atmosphere. Playing the Tambura also needs special skill since the plucking should give a sustained sruti guide to the main performer.

The Tambura which gives the sa-pa-sa Sruti notes is pure therapy to the mind and soul. Sit in a quiet place with eyes closed and listen to the notes of a perfectly tuned Tambura — the effect is therapeutic.

Tambura makers rarely get orders. If they did, the preference is for instruments 50 years old since the wood used then was well seasoned and of great quality.

Except a few, the current generation is for electronic sruti accompaniment, including Bluetooth. Portability is the obvious reason for the choice. Besides few music students are taught to tune and play the tambura. Beyond all this what seems to swing the vote is that the electronic sruti equipment with its heavy tonal quality can cover up when the sruti goes astray.

During the middle of the last century, Miraj Tamburas (next only to the vintage Thanajvur) were a rage amongst music students, who were captivated by its tonal quality with high precision and the beautiful, natural gourd resonators.

[Bold typeface added above for emphasis]

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Perceptions of “Guru” now and then

A teacher teaches music – the curriculum, the techniques, the methods and so on, but a Guru teaches how to approach music: how to understand it, how to internalize it and how to enjoy it. […]

Music is a lifelong pursuit and its emotions start sinking into you with more internal growth of the self (for which the Guru is an enabler). At a certain phase in this pursuit, you become your own Guru.

Vasudevan Ram in Learning Music – A Guru Is More Than A Teacher >>

The word ‘Guru’ in the Indian context of learning places the person on par with or even higher than God.

Pantula Rama paying tribute to her violin guru Ivaturi Vijayeswara Rao of the Dwaram tradition in “Architect of Vizag’s music scenario” (The Hindu, 19 February 2013)

Note: gurukulavāsam refers to the practice of living as member of a teacher’s household >>

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Why Carnatic Music Matters More Than Ever

by Ludwig Pesch

For this musicologist and author, there are good reasons to believe that Carnatic music matters, perhaps more than ever and almost anywhere in the world. So why not perform and teach it in the service of better education for all, for ecological awareness or in order to promote mutual respect in spite of all our differences? And in the process, get “invigorated and better equipped to tackle the larger issues at hand”.

Published by Shankar Ramchandran on behalf of Dhvani Ohio | Read or download the full article (PDF, 800 KB, updated 19 June 2021):

Attribution-NonCommercial-ShareAlike 4.0 License

Related post: A brief introduction to Carnatic music >>

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“Sampradaya is like a broad river and the bani is a tributary”: Umayalpuram Sivaraman on his 75 years of performance >>

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